Somebody To Lean On | Cracking Down On Crutch Words

During editing, writers will often be advised to cut out their crutch words to make their writing snappy and less convoluted.

These include unnecessary adjectives, phrases that state the obvious, and overused words. They’re called “crutch words” because they’re the ones we habitually rely on while we’re writing.

Especially true with the first draft of a WIP, I’m more focused on getting the story down and the way the events unfold rather than the language. I’m not stopping to crack open a thesaurus. Instead, I let myself use the same word on a more frequent basis so I can just keep things flowing and fix it in editing.

I’m aware I favor certain words, and that list is always changing. I might realize my tendency to favor a particular word and get in the habit of restraining myself because the little bell in the back of my head will ding whenever I use it. There may also be a word I come across while I’m reading and unintentionally start employing it more and more in my own books.

With this round of edits for Bound to the Heart, there has been an abundance of “embitterment” and “embittered state,” “blanched,” and “endeavored” or and instances of characters “bracing” themselves popping up more than they did in the past.

Identifying and omitting the words we’ve exhausted in our writing can bring vast improvement. However, it can be overwhelming, and the circumstances may vary depending on the story you are writing and the crutch words inundating it.

Below you’ll find a handful of tips to keep in mind as you’re writing or editing, plus a list of crutch words you might be leaning on.

Decluttering Your Writing By Eliminating Crutch Words

Crutch words come in a few varieties and recognizing each can help you address them as you write and edit.

Filler and Fluff

These words take up space.

I think these come up because writers worry about the length of their WIP and insert more words than needed to boost their word count. The problem with this is how easily the sentences can become muddled or difficult to understand because of the extraneous words.

The wheels on the bike might be clearer if written as The bike’s wheels.

Stating the Obvious

Don’t underestimate your readers’ ability to infer their own image of what is happening from a simple description.

Most often adjectives as far as my writing habits are concerned.

Saying a mouse is small or that the ocean is blue isn’t conveying anything special. When we think of a mouse, we know it’s a small creature. We often picture the ocean as blue.

Focus on the adjectives that matter.

How small is the mouse? What shade of blue is the ocean?

Significance doesn’t take up space that the obvious does.

Frequent Flyers

When you ask a writer what their crutch words are, they are likely to respond with the words they use the most.

There are some standard ones, but also words specific to individual writers.

In my writing, I have a habit of repeating body language or making similar notes. Characters might be seen tucking a straying curl of hair behind their ear, stares meeting, avoiding gazes, smiling, frowning, shrugging, nodding, sighing, and letting out a breath.

These are my crutches because I turn to these when I need a break in dialogue or introducing a character into a scene.

Characters also turn and shift towards whoever they’re talking to.

When I’m editing, I make a point to go through these beats and adjust them or delete them altogether.

Tackling Crutch Words

My editing process includes what I call Rep Edits, short for Repetition Edits. At this stage, I’ll run the chapter I’m working on through a word frequency counter, generating a tally of every word I’ve used in that chapter and how many times that word appears.

I am then able to go through the chapter and Ctrl+F each word to replace those I’ve overused with synonyms.

This is perhaps a little extreme compared to other writers, as is a lot of my editing process overall, but I also know my tendencies and crutch words and doubt I would be able to catch all of them without having that list at my disposal.

A common issue with crutch words is how easily they blend in. We don’t always notice we’re using them or how often they appear.

Take note of your habits as writer and make a mental list of the crutch words you favor or depend. Being mindful of your tendencies and practicing your craft will help you develop your voice as a storyteller.

As is the case with pretty much everything else in writing, there are no clear-cut rules here. Use your best judgement to determine what makes sense in a particular circumstance and for you as a writer.

Where I Don’t Worry About Crutch Words (As Much)

Dialogue | When we’re having a conversation with someone, we don’t stop to find a different word to convey our thoughts because the other person has already used it in their previous remark.

Back in elementary school, I spent a lot of recesses on the blacktop playing clapping games, including a word-association game known as Concentration.

If memory serves, the rhyme went something like this:

Concentration. Sixty-four.

No repeats. Or hesitation.

I’ll go first. You go second.

Category is. [Category]

As this rhyme explains, a category is determined, at which point you and the other person take turns naming things that fall under that category.

If it is Disney Channel movies, these might include High School Musical, Stuck In The Suburbs, and my personal favorite from childhood Pixel Perfect.

The catch is you cannot repeat what has already been said, so if your next movie was The Cheetah Girls and the other person says it first, you need to be ready to retaliate with The Cheetah Girls 2.

These rules don’t apply to writing dialogue.

Take a look at the following conversation from Bound to the Heart:

“If you don’t mind the inquiry, Miss Chavasse, are you looking for something in particular?”

“I was hoping to find a copy of the novel I am currently reading.” [Eve] slid the one in her possession into the slender gap its absence created and proceeded further down the row. “I was in the middle of a chapter before we left for the party. I had hoped to read more in the carriage on our way here, but it wouldn’t fit in my reticule. I asked Mrs. Smith if she had a copy here I could read while I got some air, and she gave me permission to look.”

[Zach]’s brow rose. “Novel?”

“I shouldn’t bother you with the details.”

“It wouldn’t be a bother at all.” He straightened his jacket. “You’ve garnered my interests, Miss Chavasse. Which novel is it?”

This is the same conversation, but every instance of “novel” after the first is replaced with a synonym:

“If you don’t mind the inquiry, Miss Chavasse, are you looking for something in particular?”

“I was hoping to find a copy of the novel I am currently reading.” [Eve] slid the one in her possession into the slender gap its absence created and proceeded further down the row. “I was in the middle of a chapter before we left for the party. I had hoped to read more in the carriage on our way here, but it wouldn’t fit in my reticule. I asked Mrs. Smith if she had a copy here I could read while I got some air, and she gave me permission to look.”

[Zach]’s brow rose. “Book?”

“I shouldn’t bother you with the details.”

“It wouldn’t be a bother at all.” He straightened his jacket. “You’ve garnered my interests, Miss Chavasse. Which tome is it?”

Notice how the conversation feels more disjointed and artificial.

People have vast lexicons but we are not walking thesauruses. We repeat words or have particular favorites.

I write in third-person POV, so I tend to be more careful with repetition where possible, but a first-person POV narrative (meaning that the narrator is a character within the story) may not need to be so choosy because the narration will resemble the protagonist’s dialogue patterns.

We’re also apt to use filler words while we think, things such as “um” or “uh” and “like.”

These can help make your dialogue more authentic because it’s something we naturally do, but it’s best done in moderation.

A Scarcity Of Synonyms | This typically comes up with nouns.

There are some instances where a there are only so many terms to describe something.

This can vary from one project to the next. In Bound to the Heart, Zach’s bookshop has a printing press and he can be seen operating it. There are only so many terms for this device so the word “press” or “printing press” might show up six times in a scene.

Body Parts | Synonyms won’t always give you a leg up.

Some writers will use synonyms or metaphors to get the point across, but this doesn’t can leave readers wondering what you’re saying. They might describe a character’s hair as “an errant tendril escaping her loose chignon” or have their eyes being referred to as “orbs.”

Orbs is a common example I’ve come across in various writing classes over the years. This can work well if done right, but in my experience it’s not always easy.

Where possible, I try to focus on a specific area of that body part. For the neck, I might mention the throat, nape, or collarbone, depending on the circumstance.

Some scenes might require more attention to body parts than others, like a sex scene. There are only so many ways to describe hands, fingers, or lips without taking the reader completely out of the moment and killing the mood.

Similarly, this can lead to silly terminology for genitalia. Writers might be inclined to insert various phrases to avoid referencing certain members in a way that might catch readers off guard or even offend them by being too blunt (“member” being a common substitute for the masculine form).

Some may refer to a penis or vagina, a cock or dick or a clit, or implement more decorative language like rods or flowers.

I’m partial to phallus and folds, myself, so kind of in the middle.

I once read a scene where the author had already used about a dozen different terms for the character’s penis in the span of two pages, and I couldn’t take it seriously because I kept laughing at the descriptors and high attention paid to the male physique. It sometimes felt like the author had a set of those naughty dice given out as bachelorette party favors and just rolled them whenever she felt his stature needed mentioning.

“The girth of his throbbing John Handcock” was the one that made me add the book to my DNF pile.

There are only so many ways to describe a body part without getting ridiculous. I vary which body parts I’m referring to, but there is likely going to be more mention of hands or fingers in these scenes than two characters sitting down to dinner.

Overall, assess the impact of removing the word or implementing a synonym. How does that affect the sentence or paragraph as a whole? Does the meaning change? How does it sound?

The List

As promised at the top of the post, here is a list of common crutch words in no particular order:

  • Had
  • As
  • That
  • Just
  • “Well, …”
  • Oh/Uh/Um
  • So…
  • Very
  • Shrugged
  • Laughed
  • Smiled
  • Frowned
  • Started to
  • Began to
  • Glimpsed
  • Glanced
  • Gazed
  • Stared
  • Nodded
  • Thought
  • Looked at/to
  • Shifted
  • Turned to/towards
  • Knew
  • Seemed
  • Attention (specifically, His/Her attention…)
  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Felt
  • Touched

I’m sure I missed a bunch of crutch words, and I would love to hear what you would add to the list. There may even be a few I had not realized were sneaking into my WIPs, so please share in the comments!

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